Business group pushes for U.S. flood insurance reform as December deadline looms

Business group pushes for U.S. flood insurance reform as December deadline looms

By Ginger Gibson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The latest attempt to overhaul the U.S. federal flood insurance program hit a stumbling block, but a coalition of business and environmental groups renewed their push on Wednesday for lawmakers to enact an overhaul before the program expires on Dec. 8.

The SmarterSafer coalition sent a letter to members of the U.S. House urging passage of the compromise legislation that would extend to 2022 the federal program that has been heavily utilized after vast flooding from hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

“This legislative package moves the flood program in the right direction and contains needed reforms that will better protect those in harm’s way, the environment, and taxpayers,” the letter states, according to a copy seen by Reuters.

The hurdle came with the House Rules Committee indefinitely postponed a hearing on the bill that was scheduled for Tuesday night.

“Clearly they’re trying to make sure they’ve got all their ducks in a row and they’ve got all the votes they need,” said Steve Ellis, with the conservative group Taxpayers for Common Sense, which is part of a coalition pushing for reform of the program.

Joshua Saks, the legislative director of the National Wildlife Federation, said one of the shortcomings of the compromise is that it does not ensure that the money for flood mitigation projects will ever be spent.

“We need an Apollo project of mitigation right now, we need billions right now up front,” Saks said, referring to the project that put a man on the moon.

Two prominent Republican members of the U.S. House announced last week they had struck a deal that would extend the life of the program that covers most of the nation’s flood-prone properties.

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling of Texas brokered the compromise and said the deal helps policy holders and taxpayers.

Last month, President Donald Trump signed a $36.5 billion disaster relief bill, including $16 billion in forgiveness of some debt in the National Flood Insurance Program, which insures about 5 million homes and businesses.

(Reporting by Ginger Gibson. Additional reporting by David Shepardson.)

New York lets neighborhood return to nature to guard against storms

New York lets neighborhood return to nature to guard against storms

By Peter Szekely

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Every now and then, Frank and Mary Lettieri come back to visit what used to be their tightly packed Staten Island neighborhood before Superstorm Sandy prompted New York state to let it go back to nature.

The deadly storm, which swamped the New York metropolitan area five years ago and revealed its vulnerability, convinced state officials to offer to buy out homeowners in flood-prone areas, including the Lettieris’ Oakwood Beach neighborhood.

At first, the Lettieris resisted. They had owned their nearly paid-off home since 1987, raised five children in it and spent $138,000 to rebuild after the storm sent a surge over the nearby beach that filled their first floor with seawater.

But eventually, like nearly 80 percent of their fellow Staten Island residents who were offered the same opportunity, they took the deal, part of a New York state program to convert the most vulnerable neighborhoods into uninhabited buffer zones.

“I wish we could have stayed, but we couldn’t,” said Frank, remembering a 1992 storm that also flooded them out. “The writing was on the wall. We had to go.”

Sandy, a late-season hurricane, killed at least 159 people in New York, New Jersey and other parts of the East Coast on Oct. 29, 2012, including a father and son who drowned in the basement of their home next door to the Lettieris. It damaged or destroyed more than 650,000 homes.

Much of the impetus for the home buyout program was an expectation that storms like Sandy will become more common, according to Lisa Bova-Hiatt, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery.

“To say that extreme weather is not our new normal would just be incredibly short-sighted,” she said.

Rising sea levels will increase the average number of storms that flood New York City with surges of at least 7.4 feet (2.3 m) to once every five years by 2030 from once every 500 years before 1800, according to a Rutgers University study published on Tuesday.

BUFFER ZONE

Using money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, New York has spent $255 million to buy 654 properties, mostly in Staten Island, with 83 more in the pipeline, the Office of Storm Recovery said.

“The program is voluntary,” said Bova-Hiatt. “However, at some point it would be fantastic to have the entire area as a buffer zone.”

Bova-Hiatt, herself a Staten Island resident, said the state will never use its power of eminent domain to force out the Staten Islanders who declined buyout offers for 142 properties and can no longer accept them because the program has ended.

But she declined to predict whether New York City would seize property for a planned seawall to protect 5.5 miles (8.9 km) of Staten Island’s east coast.

New Jersey also has a buyout program, having spent $110 million from the federal government to buy 520 properties in areas that were hit by Sandy-related flooding, according to the State Department of Environmental Protection.

Two residents of Staten Island’s Oakwood Beach section who declined to sell are Gregory and Olga Epshteyn. Their two-story home is among 88 that the state failed to acquire out of the 402 in the neighborhood that were eligible.

“This is the best place on Staten Island to live,” said Gregory, adding that the city still diligently provides services, such as garbage pickup and street lights.

“We love it here, but we miss our neighbors,” Olga added.

The Epshteyns’ home now has plenty of open space around it as Oakwood Beach and two other storm-ravaged sections of Staten Island return to their natural states.

Most of the bungalows, townhouses and other modest homes that lined the neighborhood’s narrow streets have been torn down and covered over with grass that the state maintains.

On a recent visit, the Lettieris, both retired, said they missed Oakwood Beach, but did not regret their decision to take the state’s offer and move to higher ground about a mile (1.6 km) away.

Former residents often come back on the anniversary of Sandy and many are expected to visit on this Sunday’s five-year mark.

Yuriy Domashov recently moved to the edge of Oakwood Beach after taking the state buyout for his oceanfront townhouse in another flood-prone area a few miles up the beach.

“For all my life I was connected to the water,” said Domashov, a veteran of the Soviet navy, as he walked his dog near the beach.

Having survived the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and an ordeal aboard his submarine, Domashov said he does not worry about another storm of the century.

“Once in 100 years, I believe, is good enough for me,” said Domashov, who is 75.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Vietnam braces for typhoon Khanun after floods kill 72

A boy paddles a boat past a flooded village's gate after a heavy rain caused by a tropical depression in Hanoi, Vietnam October 16, 2017.

HANOI (Reuters) – Vietnam braced for typhoon Khanun on Monday after destructive floods battered the country’s north and center last week, killing 72 people, the disaster prevention agency said.

Last week’s floods were the worst in years, the government and state-run Vietnam Television said, with thousands of homes submerged. Another 200 houses collapsed and several towns remain cut off by the floodwater.

The floods also damaged more than 22,000 hectares (54,300 acres) of rice.

Farmers harvest rice on a flooded field after a heavy rainfall caused by a tropical depression in Ninh Binh province, Vietnam October 14, 2017.

Farmers harvest rice on a flooded field after a heavy rainfall caused by a tropical depression in Ninh Binh province, Vietnam October 14, 2017. REUTERS/Kham

Vietnam is the world’s third-largest exporter of rice and the second-biggest producer of coffee, although the floods have not affected the Southeast Asian nation’s coffee belt.

Eighteen people from the hardest-hit province of Hoa Binh in the north were buried by a landslide, but only thirteen bodies have been found, Vietnam’s disaster agency said.

The government has said it is fixing dykes, dams and roads damaged by last week’s flood and is preparing for typhoon Khanun, which is expected to cause heavy rain in northern and central Vietnam from Monday.

It has also warned ships and boats to avoid the approaching typhoon.

Vietnam is prone to destructive storms and flooding due to its long coastline. A typhoon wreaked havoc across central provinces last month.

Floods have also affected nine out of 77 provinces in Thailand, Vietnam’s neighbor to the west. Three people had been killed in flooding since last Tuesday, Thailand’s disaster agency said on Monday.

The Thai capital, Bangkok, was hit by heavy rain at the weekend, with gridlocked traffic bringing parts of the city to a standstill. Bangkok has often been described as the “Venice of the East” because of its many waterways.

However, the floods prompted criticism of Bangkok’s city government, with some social media users accusing authorities of not managing water levels in canals properly.

The city government defended itself, saying it was working closely with the irrigation department. Thailand suffered its worst flood in five decades in 2011, with hundreds of people killed, industrial estates engulfed and key industries crippled.

 

(Reporting by Mai Nguyen in HANOI; Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Panarat Thepgumpanat in BANGKOK; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Paul Tait)

 

Death toll from worst Vietnam floods in years rises to 54

Death toll from worst Vietnam floods in years rises to 54

HANOI (Reuters) – At least 54 people died and 39 went missing as destructive floods battered northern and central Vietnam this week, the disaster prevention agency said on Friday.

Vietnam is prone to destructive storms and flooding due to its long coastline. A typhoon wrecked havoc across central provinces just last month.

The floods that hit Vietnam this week starting on Monday are the worst in years, state-run Vietnam Television quoted agriculture minister Nguyen Xuan Cuong as saying.

Nineteen people from four neighboring households in Hoa Binh were buried alive early on Thursday after a landslide struck around midnight on Wednesday, but only nine bodies have been found, the disaster agency said in a report.

Some 317 homes have collapsed in floods and landslides this week, while more than 34,000 other houses have been submerged or damaged.

More than 22,000 hectares (54,300 acres) of rice have also been damaged and around 180,000 animals killed or washed away.

Floods have also affected seven of 77 provinces in Thailand, Vietnam’s neighbor to the west, that country’s Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation said on Thursday.

More than 480,000 hectares (1.2 million acres) of agricultural land Thailand have been hit, the department said.

A couple watches TV in their flooded house after a tropical depression in Hanoi, Vietnam October 13, 2017. REUTERS/Kham

A couple watches TV in their flooded house after a tropical depression in Hanoi, Vietnam October 13, 2017. REUTERS/Kham

(Reporting by Mi Nguyen; Editing by Tom Hogue)

Thousands evacuated in Vietnam as floods, landslides kill 46

Thousands evacuated in Vietnam as floods, landslides kill 46

By Mai Nguyen

HANOI (Reuters) – Heavy rain in northern and central Vietnam triggered floods and landslides that killed 46 people and 33 people were missing in the worst such disaster in years, the search and rescue committee said on Thursday.

Vietnam often suffers destructive storms and floods due to its long coastline. More than 200 people were killed in storms last year.

“In the past 10 years, we haven’t suffered from such severe and intense floods,” state-run Vietnam Television quoted agriculture minister Nguyen Xuan Cuong as saying.

A typhoon tore a destructive path across central Vietnam just last month, flooding and damaging homes and knocking out power lines.

The latest floods hit Vietnam on Monday.

“Our entire village has had sleepless nights…it’s impossible to fight against this water, it’s the strongest in years,” a resident in northwestern Hoa Binh province was quoted by VTV as saying.

Vietnam’s Central Steering Committee for Natural Disaster Prevention and Control said authorities were discharging water from dams to control water levels.

Some 317 homes had collapsed, while more than 34,000 other houses were submerged or had been damaged.

Earlier reports said more than 8,000 hectares (19,800 acres) of rice had been damaged and around 40,000 animals were killed or washed away.

Hoa Binh province in the northwest declared a state of emergency and opened eight gates to discharge water at Hoa Binh dam, Vietnam’s largest hydroelectric dam, the first time it has done so in years, VTV reported.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc visited northern Ninh Binh province where water levels in the Hoang Long river are their highest since 1985.

Rising sea levels are also threatening Vietnam’s more than 3,260 km (2,000 mile) coastline, resulting in increased flooding of low lying coastal regions, erosion and salt water intrusion.

Floods have also affected seven of 77 provinces in Thailand, Vietnam’s neighbor to the west, the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation said on Thursday. More than 480,000 hectares (1.2 million acres) of agricultural land have been hit, the department said.

Thailand is the world’s second-biggest exporter of rice.

“It is still too soon to tell whether there will be damage to rice crops because most of the rice has already been harvested,” Charoen Laothamatas, president of the Thai Rice Exporters Association, told Reuters.

In 2011, Thailand was hit by its worst flooding in half a century. The floods killed hundreds and crippled industry, including the country’s key automotive sector.

(Additional reporting by Mi Nguyen in HANOI and; Suphanida Thakral in BANGKOK; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Neil Fullick and Nick Macfie)

With fuel and water scarce, Puerto Rico presses for shipping waiver

FILE PHOTO: People queue to fill container with gasoline in a gas station after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico September 24, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

By Robin Respaut and Scott DiSavino

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico/NEW YORK (Reuters) – As Puerto Rico struggles with a lack of fuel, water and medical supplies following the devastation of Hurricane Maria, it is pressing the Trump administration to lift a prohibition on foreign ships delivering supplies from the U.S. mainland.

The island’s governor is pushing for the federal government to temporarily waive the Jones Act, a law requiring that all goods shipped between U.S. ports be carried by U.S. owned-and-operated ships. President Donald Trump’s administration has so far not granted his request.

“We’re thinking about that,” Trump told reporters when asked about lifting the Jones Act restrictions on Wednesday. “But we have a lot of shippers and …. a lot of people that work in the shipping industry that don’t want the Jones Act lifted, and we have a lot of ships out there right now.”

Many of the U.S. territory’s 3.4 million inhabitants are queuing for scarce supplies of gas and diesel to run generators as the island’s electrical grid remains crippled a week after Maria hit. Government-supplied water trucks have been mobbed.

Puerto Rico gets most of its fuel by ship from the United States, but one of its two main ports is closed and the other is operating only during the daytime.

“We expect them to waive it (the Jones Act),” Governor Ricardo Rossello told CNN on Wednesday, noting there was a brief waiver issued after Hurricane Irma, which was much less devastating as it grazed past the island en route for Florida earlier this month.

Members of Congress from both parties have supported an emergency waiver, he said.

The U.S. government has issued periodic Jones Act waivers following severe storms in the past, to allow the use of cheaper or more readily available foreign-flagged ships.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which waived the law after Irma and after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in August, said on Wednesday it was considering a request by members of Congress for a waiver, but had not received any formal requests from shippers or other branches of the federal government.

Gregory Moore, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, an office of Homeland Security, said in a statement on Tuesday that an agency assessment showed there was “sufficient capacity” of U.S.-flagged vessels to move commodities to Puerto Rico.

“The limitation is going to be port capacity to offload and transit, not vessel availability,” he said.

LACK OF WATER, FUEL

Maria, the most powerful storm to hit Puerto Rico in nearly 90 years, caused widespread flooding and damage to homes and infrastructure.

Residents are scrambling to find clean water, with experts concerned about a looming public health crisis posed by the damaged water system.

On Tuesday, hundreds of people crowded around a government water tanker in the northeastern municipality of Canovanas with containers of every size and shape after a wait that for many had lasted days.

Some residents also waited hours for gasoline and diesel to fuel their automobile tanks and power generators to light their homes.

U.S. Air Force Colonel Michael Valle, on hand for relief efforts in San Juan, said he was most concerned about “the level of desperation” that could arise if fuel distribution did not return to normal within a couple of weeks.

In Washington, Republican leaders who control both chambers of Congress have said they are prepared to boost disaster funding, but are waiting for a detailed request from the Trump administration.

In the meantime, the administration still has $5 billion in aid in a disaster relief fund, and Congress has also approved about $7 billion more that will become available on Oct. 1.

(Reporting by Robin Respaut in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Scott DiSavino in New York; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Richard Cowan, Timothy Gardner and Jeff Mason in Washington; Writing by Bill Rigby; Editing by Frances Kerry and Lisa Shumaker)

Puerto Rico evacuates area near crumbling dam, asks for aid

An aerial view shows the damage to the Guajataca dam. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

By Dave Graham and Robin Respaut

SAN JUAN (Reuters) – Many people living near a crumbling dam in storm-battered Puerto Rico have evacuated, Governor Ricardo Rossello said on Monday, as he asked for more government aid to avert a humanitarian crisis after Hurricane Maria.

Much of the Caribbean island, a U.S. territory with a population of 3.4 million, is still without electricity five days after Maria struck with ferocious winds and torrential rains, the most powerful hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in nearly a century.

There have been growing concerns for some 70,000 people who live in the river valley below the Guajataca Dam in the island’s northwest, where cracks were seen on Friday in the 88-year-old earthen structure.

Rossello said he was working on the assumption that the 120-foot (35-meter) dam would collapse.

“I’d rather be wrong on that front than doing nothing and having that fail and costing people lives,” he said in an interview with CNN. “Most of the people in the near vicinity have evacuated.”

Local residents react while they look at the water flowing over the road at the dam of the Guajataca lake.

Local residents react while they look at the water flowing over the road at the dam of the Guajataca lake.
REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

It was unclear if the governor was saying that most of the 70,000 valley inhabitants had left the area, or only the several hundred people living in the small towns closest to the dam. About 320 people from those towns have moved to safety, according to local media.

The fear of a potentially catastrophic dam break added to the immense task facing disaster relief authorities after Maria, which was the second major hurricane to strike the Caribbean this month. The storm killed at least 29 people in the region, at least 10 of those in Puerto Rico, which was already battling an economic crisis.

Rossello said that before the storms struck, he had been embarking on an aggressive fiscal agenda that included more than $1.5 billion in cuts.

“This is a game changer,” he told CNN. “This is a completely different set of circumstances. This needs to be taken into consideration otherwise there will be a humanitarian crisis.”

‘UNPRECEDENTED PUSH’

Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and Tom Bossert, senior adviser to the Department of Homeland Security, met with Rossello on Monday.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters in Washington that the administration was engaged in a fact-finding process to figure out how much help Puerto Rico needs.

“The federal response has been anything but slow,” Sanders said at the daily briefing. “In fact, there’s been an unprecedented push through of billions of dollars in federal assistance that the administration has fought for.”

Many structures on Puerto Rico, including hospitals, remain badly damaged and flooded, with clean drinking water hard to find in some areas. Few planes have been able to land or take off from damaged airports.

The storm has also put a big strain on PREPA, the island’s electricity utility, which declared bankruptcy in July after accumulating a $9 billion debt and years of underinvestment.

From preliminary FEMA reports, it is estimated that 55 percent of transmission towers may be down, and that more than 90 percent of the distribution system could have been destroyed.

More than 91 percent of Puerto Rico’s cellphone sites are also out of service, the Federal Communications Commission said.

There are more than 10,000 federal staff, including more than 700 people from FEMA, doing recovery work in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to FEMA.

The National Weather Service warned of further flash floods in the west of the island on Monday as thunderstorms moved in.

Maria would likely be downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm on Tuesday night, the National Hurricane Center said. As of 2 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT) on Monday, the center said, it was about 300 miles (480 km) south-southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, heading slowly north.

The storm was unlikely to hit the continental United States directly, but the NHC said large swells were affecting the U.S. East Coast. A tropical storm warning was in effect for much of the North Carolina coast and officials issued a mandatory evacuation order for visitors to Ocracoke Island in the Outer Banks that went into effect at 5 a.m. EDT (0900 GMT) on Monday.

(Reporting by Dave Graham and Robin Respaut; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen, Scott DiSavino, Stephanie Kelly and Peter Szekely in New York and Doina Chiacu and Eric Beech in Washington; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Frances Kerry and Lisa Shumaker)

Failing dam creates new crisis on Puerto Rico amid flooding from Hurricane Maria

Locals walk by a street affected by an overflow of the Soco River in El Seibo, Dominican Republic, September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas

By Dave Graham and Robin Respaut

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Emergency officials in Puerto Rico raced on Saturday to evacuate tens of thousands of people from a river valley below a dam in the island’s northwest, which is on the verge of collapse under the weight of flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

The potential calamity was unfolding as Puerto Ricans struggled without electricity to clean up and dig out from the devastation left days earlier by Maria, which has killed at least 25 people across the Caribbean, according to officials and media reports.

Some 70,000 people live in a cluster of communities under evacuation downstream from the earthen dam on the rain-swollen Guajataca River, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello said in a late-afternoon news conference on Friday.

Residents of the area were being ferried to higher ground in buses, according to bulletins issued by the National Weather Service from its office in San Juan, the capital of the U.S. island territory.

Christina Villalba, an official for the island’s emergency management agency, said there was little doubt the dam was about to break.

“It could be tonight, it could be tomorrow, it could be in the next few days, but it’s very likely it will be soon,” she told Reuters by telephone on Friday night. She said authorities aimed to complete evacuations within hours.

Governor Ricardo Rossello went to the municipality of Isabela on Friday night and told mayor Carlos Delgado that an evacuation there was urgent, his office said in a statement.

Rossello said the rains sparked by Maria had cracked the dam and could cause fatal flooding.

Puerto Rico’s national guard had been mobilized to help the police evacuate all necessary areas, Rossello said.

People had begun leaving nearby areas, but one small community was refusing and Rossello instructed the police to step in under a law that mandated them to remove the local population in an emergency, the statement said.

Villalba could not say how many people had already been evacuated, or how authorities were communicating with residents to organize the evacuation.

PATH OF DESTRUCTION

Maria, the second major hurricane to savage the Caribbean this month and the most powerful storm to strike Puerto Rico in nearly a century, carved a path of destruction on Wednesday. The island remained entirely without electricity, except for emergency generators, two days later.

Telephone service was also unreliable.

Roofs were ripped from many homes and the landscape was littered with tangles of rubble, uprooted trees and fallen power lines. Torrential downpours from the storm sent several rivers to record flood levels.

Officials confirmed on Friday at least six storm-related fatalities in Puerto Rico, an island of 3.4 million inhabitants – three from landslides in Utuado, in the island’s mountainous center, two drownings in Toa Baja, west of San Juan, and a person near San Juan who was struck by a piece of wind-blown lumber.

Earlier news reports had put the island’s death toll as high as 15.

“We know of other potential fatalities through unofficial channels that we haven’t been able to confirm,” said Hector Pesquera, the government’s secretary of public safety.

DEBT CRISIS

Maria struck Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale as the island was already facing the largest municipal debt crisis in U.S. history.

The storm was expected to tally $45 billion in damage and lost economic activity across the Caribbean, with at least $30 billion of that in Puerto Rico, said Chuck Watson, a disaster modeler at Enki Research in Savannah, Georgia.

Elsewhere in the Caribbean, 14 deaths were reported on Dominica, an island nation of 71,000 inhabitants. Two people were killed in the French territory of Guadeloupe and one in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Two people died when the storm roared past the Dominican Republic on Thursday, according to media outlet El Jaya.

Maria churned past the Turks and Caicos Islands on Friday, then skirted away from the Bahamas, sparing both from the brunt of the storm, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center.

It still had sustained winds of up to 120 miles per hour (195 km/h) on Saturday, making it a Category 3 hurricane, but was expected to weaken gradually over the next two days as it turned more sharply to the north.

Storm swells driven by Maria were expected to reach the southeastern coast of the U.S mainland on Friday, the NHC said, although it was too soon to determine what, if any, other direct effects it would have.

Maria passed close by the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix, home to about 55,000 people, early on Wednesday, knocking out electricity and most mobile phone service.

It hit about two weeks after Hurricane Irma pounded two other U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Thomas and St. John. The islands’ governor, Kenneth Mapp, said it was possible that St. Thomas and St. Croix might reopen to some cruise liner traffic in a month.

Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record, killed more than 80 people in the Caribbean and the United States. It followed Harvey, which also killed more than 80 people when it struck Texas in late August and caused flooding in Houston.

(Reporting by Dave Graham and Robin Respaut in San Juan; Additional reporting by Jorge Pineda in Santo Domingo, Nick Brown in Houston, Devika Krishna Kumar and Daniel Wallis and Jennifer Ablan in New York and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Writing by Scott Malone and Steve Gorman; Editing by Andrew Bolton)

Powerful Hurricane Maria makes landfall on Puerto Rico

Powerful Hurricane Maria makes landfall on Puerto Rico

By Alvin Baez and Robin Respaut

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Hurricane Maria roared ashore in Puerto Rico on Wednesday as the strongest storm to hit the U.S. territory in about 90 years after lashing the U.S. Virgin Islands and devastating a string of tiny Caribbean islands, killing at least one person.

Packing 155 mile per hour (250 kph) winds and driving high storm surges, Maria made landfall near Yabouca, the National Hurricane Center said. It was heading northwest, on a track directly over the island of 3.4 million people.

It struck just days after the region was punched by Hurricane Irma, which ranked as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record, which left a trail of destruction on several Caribbean islands and Florida.

“We have not experienced an event of this magnitude in our modern history,” Ricardo Rossello, governor of Puerto Rico, said in a televised message on Tuesday.

“Although it looks like a direct hit with major damage to Puerto Rico is inevitable, I ask for America’s prayers,” he said, adding the government has set up 500 shelters.

In Puerto Rico, Maria is expected to dump as much as 25 inches (63.5 cm) of rain on parts of the island, the NHC said. Storm surges, when hurricanes push ocean water dangerously over normal levels, could be up to 9 feet (2.74 meters).

The heavy rainfall could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides, it added.

A few hours earlier, Maria passed west of St. Croix, home to about half of the U.S. Virgin Islands’ 103,000 residents, as a rare Category 5 storm the top of the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale.

The center has hurricane warnings and watches out for the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Culebra, and Vieques, the Turks and Caicos Islands, the southeastern Bahamas and the Dominican Republic from Cabo Engano to Puerto Plata.

Many U.S. Virgin Islands residents fled to shelters around midday Tuesday. U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp warned residents that their lives were at risk.

“The only thing that matters is the safety of your family, and your children, and yourself. The rest of the stuff, forget it,” Mapp said.

Authorities expect to start assessing storm damage on St. Croix from daybreak.

After crossing Puerto Rico, Maria will pass just north of the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic on Wednesday night and Thursday, the NHC said.

It was too early to know if Maria will threaten the continental United States as it moves northward in the Atlantic.

Earlier this month, Irma devastated several small islands, including Barbuda and the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, and caused heavy damage in Cuba and Florida, killing at least 84 people in the Caribbean and the U.S. mainland.

A man looks at a fallen tree as he walks along a street after the passage of Hurricane Maria in Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe island, France, September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

A man looks at a fallen tree as he walks along a street after the passage of Hurricane Maria in Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe island, France, September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

DIRECT HIT

Maria is set to be the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico since 1928, when the San Felipe Segundo hurricane made a direct hit on the island and killed about 300 people, the National Weather Service said.

A slow weakening is expected after the hurricane emerges over the Atlantic north of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the NHC added.

Puerto Rico avoided a direct hit from Irma, but the storm knocked out power for 70 percent of the island, and killed at least three people.

“This is going to be catastrophic for our island,” said Grisele Cruz, who was staying at a shelter in the southeastern city of Guayama. “We’re going to be without services for a long time.”

Puerto Rico is grappling with the largest municipal debt crisis in U.S. history, with both its government and the public utility having filed for bankruptcy protection amid fights with creditors.

The storm plowed into Dominica, a mountainous country of 72,000 people, late on Monday causing what Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit called “mind-boggling” destruction.

North of Dominica, the French island territory of Guadeloupe appeared to have been hit hard. The Guadeloupe prefecture said one person was killed by a falling tree and at least two people were missing in a shipwreck.

Some roofs had been ripped off, roads were blocked by fallen trees, 80,000 households were without power and there was flooding in some southern coastal areas, the prefecture said in Twitter posts.

Members of the Emergency Operations Committee (COE) photograph the trajectory of Hurricane Maria in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas

Members of the Emergency Operations Committee (COE) photograph the trajectory of Hurricane Maria in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas

(Additional reporting by Dave Graham in San Juan, Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City, Richard Lough in Paris, Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Angus MacSwan and W Simon)

Houston residents, officials stew over Harvey storm-trash removal

FILE PHOTO: Flood-damaged contents from people's homes line the street following the aftermath of tropical storm Harvey in Wharton, Texas, U.S., September 6, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Disposing of the mounds of debris lining Houston streets three weeks after Hurricane Harvey flooding damaged about 126,000 homes is riling residents and officials in the nation’s fourth largest city.

The sheer volume of work is overwhelming initial efforts, say residents, resulting in pleas from officials for the state and private contractors to contribute vehicles. Houston also is offering to increase its fees for emergency trash removal to bring in more waste disposal trucks.

“We have been asking for more trucks for weeks,” said Greg Travis, a Houston city councilor whose hard-hit west Houston district had just two trucks operating one day this week. There is no schedule of collections nor estimate when one would be available, he said.

Houston’s trash haulers are working side-by-side with a disaster contractor’s crews from San Antonio and Austin, Texas. The city’s size, about 627 square miles (1623.92 square kilometers), is larger than Los Angeles or New York.

Across Texas, the debris left behind by the storm could reach 200 million cubic yards – enough to fill up a football stadium almost 125 times, Texas Governor Greg Abbott estimated on Thursday. Harvey’s path up the Texas coast killed as many as 82 people, flooding homes and businesses with up to 51 inches of rain.

“We have no idea when it’s going to be picked up,” said Houston resident David Greely, 51. “It’s overwhelming.”

DRC Emergency Services LLC, the city’s contractor for emergency trash removal, has about 300 trucks operating in Houston and surrounding areas, according to President John Sullivan.

“We’ll reach 500 trucks in the next few days,” he said.

Houston is renegotiating its contract to expedite the work, Alan Bernstein, a spokesman for Mayor Sylvester Turner, said on Friday.

An 8.9 percent temporary property-tax increase proposed this week by the mayor would pay for damage to city property and for costs not covered by the United States. Turner estimated the cost of debris removal is $200 million.

Contract renegotiations are common during disasters, according to DRC’s Sullivan.

“There has been price adjustments for debris contractors across Texas for Harvey recovery, not just Houston,” he said.

Some well-to-do neighborhoods have begun considering paying for private trash haulers to pick up the debris.

“I don’t know if I’m on the city’s list for trash cleanup,” said Eric Olafson, 62, who added his neighbors are discussing paying private contractors to remove their debris.

(Reporting by Bryan Sims; Editing by Gary McWilliams and Diane Craft)